“Mamay,” this year’s Ukrainian submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar, is comparatively quite rich and strange for the category. Still, this ravishing looking debut for shorts-and-docu helmer Oles Sanin, here tipping an ornate headdress to the region’s poetic film tradition pioneered by Sergei Parajanov (“The Color of Pomegranates”), could be a winner for more adventurous fests and rep houses. However, auds will need in-depth program notes to stay in steppe with pic’s very oblique story of how a Cossack falls for a blue-sky-eyed Tartar beauty across a cultural divide.
Reportedly based on a 16th-century legend that surfaces in both Ukrainian and Tartar texts, pic is essentially a Romeo and Juliet-style romance on horses, mixed with other tales of singing golden cradles, talking wolves and ethnic disputes. Opening reel kaleidoscopically mixes graphic screeds of medieval poetry with imagery of the area’s wild landscape, and key components of the story. Linear-minded viewers will struggle to make sense of the deluge of sound and vision at first, but after a while, the principle characters emerge from the morass.
A Cossack named Umai (Andrei Bilous) and his two brothers (Sergei Romaniok, Axtem Seitablaev) escape covered in some kind of whitish powder from the mine they’re being forced to work in as slaves by Tartar conquerors. Umai’s brothers find horses for the breakout, but without a ride, he’s forced to run alongside them in a breathtaking sequence, and eventually collapses from exhaustion while his bros ride away. A nomadic Tartar woman (Viktoria Spesivtseva) rescues him, restores him to health with shamanistic magic, and renames him “Mamay” (which literally means “nobody”).
Meanwhile, Umai/Mamay’s brothers get lost in the wilderness looking for him and end up cornered in a forest by the Tartars. It looks like they’re about to get the sharp end of the saber when the Moslem Tartar gang leader decides, “even infidels deserve better than a silent death in a silent forest.” Even so, the respite doesn’t last long for the men, and back on the steppe, Umai/Mamay’s romantic idyll is drawing to a close when his g.f.’s brothers decide she’s betrayed the clan.
Sanin’s direction is stately and unhurried, and shows no trace of creative influence from his day job making TV docus for foreign broadcast companies. Such work has, however, given him an obvious eye for native culture and skill with the many non-pros who pepper the cast.
Overall, film feels more like a work of folkloric painting brought to life than a than traditional movie. Nevertheless, despite the tragic ending, one might read pic as allegory pleading for cross-cultural tolerance, a very contempo theme given current strife in the nearby Caucasus region.
Stunning lensing, evident even through the lousy quality DigiBeta projection caught at Cottbus fest, is pic’s strongest suit. D.P. Sergei Mikhailchik renders the harsh, strong sunlight, romantic pastel twilights and firelit scenes with lush sensuality, bringing out the witchy splendor of Ganna Otenko and Irina Kliba’s exotic costumes (Spesivtseva’s demonic headdress during a wedding scene looks like something milliner Philip Treacy might envy.) Score by Alla Zagaykevich is hypnotic, favoring tribal drums and lutes integrated into the story.